Dave Grohl Discusses the Evolution of ‘Sound City’ to ‘Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways’

Dave Grohl Sonic Highways Interview
Dave Grohl, Ben Jaffe, Clint Maedgen, Rickie Monie, Mark Braud, Ronell Johnson, and Freddie Lonzo in ‘Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways’ (Photo: Andrew Stuart)

Filmmaker/musician Dave Grohl expands upon his documentary Sound City with Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, an eight-part documentary series that examines eight different studios in eight different cities. With Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, Grohl explores the impact specific cities and their unique histories have on artists. Grohl’s Sonic Highways also serves to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Foo Fighters, with the band recording one song for their upcoming album in each of the eight cities: Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Discussing Sonic Highways and Grohl’s artistic vision at the 2014 summer Television Critics Association press event, HBO’s SVP of Original Programming of the East Coast Nina Rosenstein said, “Because Dave’s love of all music is matched only by his curiosity, he and the band wanted to take this road trip not only to make an album, but also to pay homage and give us a rare insight into how great music comes together. It was an idea that we knew would take enormous passion, talent, vision, and commitment to pull off. Of course, with Dave’s track record as one of the most successful musicians in history, with Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, along with his recent prowess as a director and producer of Sound City, we had very high expectations. Well, somehow, impossibly, he exceeded them. Sonic Highways is a moving, funny, and surprising journey through American music told by a band who have been generous enough to allow us to come along for the ride.”

Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways airs this fall on HBO.

Director/Writer/Executive Producer Dave Grohl Interview

Was it during Sound City that got you interested in the idea of studios having a particular sound, or isn’t that something you had in mind all along?

Dave Grohl: “Actually, it started before that with the last Foo Fighters record we made in my garage. And at that point I thought, ‘You know, maybe we should do a documentary about the band where we tell the story of the last 15 or 16 years, which would maybe explain why we’re making a record in my garage?’ and we made this documentary. It was directed by a guy named James Moll, Academy Award-winning director, and it gave our band this whole new reach or audience, where people started to understand us as people. And in that, I started to realize the power of music and documentary together, because a lot of the times, music can seem really one-dimensional. You hear it in your car. You hear it in an elevator. It’s a sound. It might have a catchy melody. But if you get a little bit deeper into the artist or the song, it sort of creates this emotional connection that comes from substance and depth. It’s not just a one-dimensional thing.

When I bought the board from Sound City, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just make a short film about this studio and this piece of equipment,’ because its history is unbelievable, you know? And to me, these recording studios are like hallowed ground. They’re churches. They’re monuments to me. Some people just think they’re rooms with tubes and wires, but history has been made in these sh*tholes all over the country. You know what I mean? So to me, I was like, ‘We’ve got to tell this story because it will humanize the whole process and make it something that people can really connect to.’

And honestly, it was easy. All I had to do was tell a story. I rounded up six or seven of my best friends who work in film, and we got together and we made this documentary. The story of Sound City…I’d tell you the same story if we had six whiskeys at the bar…the story would be an hour and 42 minutes long. So I figured, ‘Okay, now that I’ve done that…’ The response I got to Sound City was incredible. Sitting on an airplane, businessmen, and old ladies in the grocery store [in an old woman’s voice, mimics her holding a cane], ‘Sound City was amazing.’ You know, everywhere I went, because it didn’t matter if you were a musician or not. The message of that movie was something a lot more human than Fleetwood Mac or Rage Against the Machine or Nirvana. It was all about being inspired to follow your passion and that anything is possible really if you really want to do it.”

When did you first get excited about hearing other people’s stories?

Dave Grohl: “My mother was a public schoolteacher for 35 years. She taught English and creative writing. She’s a forensics coach and a debate coach, and a brilliant woman. My father was a writer, too. He was a journalist for Scripps Howard and was a PR guy in Washington, DC so my lectures that I got were f**king legendary! I come from a family of great storytellers. When I was young my mother would do articulation drills. Give us something to talk about and I’d have to speak without hmming or haaing for four or five minutes. You know, every rock musician wants to be a comedian. Just like every comedian wants to be a rock star, every rock star wants to be a comedian. So you get six or seven rock musicians together with a bottle of whiskey, and you get a lot of really good f**king stories.”

Speaking of comedy, since you left the Moopets they’ve completely fallen apart. Is there any hope for the Moopets?

Dave Grohl: “I don’t know. I got kicked out of the band, man!”

How do you keep your creative energy up?

Dave Grohl: [Laughing] “Coffee! No, I mean I think that since I was young I taught myself how to play the drums and guitar and so I’ve always considered it kind of a puzzle. I can’t read music and I don’t have any formal training, so it’s all still a mystery to me. So when I discover a new chord or a scale, I’m really proud of myself. ‘I discovered something no one has ever…!’ Of course, everyone says that but I think, ‘Wow, I figured it out!’ It’s kind of that way.”

If you look back at your own musical evolution, how long did you think your lifespan was going to be? You’ve recreated yourself time and time again as a musician, as a drummer, and as a guitarist. How long did you think it was going to last?

Dave Grohl: “When Nirvana first got popular, my father, who was a classically trained musician and a writer, he called me and he said, ‘Hey, you know this isn’t going to last, right?’ And I said, ‘No, of course. Why would it? There’s no way this could ever last.’ He’s like, ‘Treat every check that you get like it’s the last one you’ll ever f**king get.’ From then it scared the hell out of me. That was 24 years ago. So I’ve always kind of waited for this to end so that I can get on with real life for the last 24 years. And eventually I just sort of realized, like, ‘Wow, well, I guess this is my real life. This is a reality.’

I mean, with a movie or with a series like this or with the Foo Fighters, to me, it’s all about recreating or reinventing the process. We could just go and make another record in a studio and hit the road and sell a bunch of T-Shirts and turn on KROQ and hear another Foo Fighters song. But where’s the fun in that? We’ve been a band for 20 years now. Let’s go to tiny studios all over the country, tell the story of music from that city and what is it about each one of these cities that influences the music that comes from there? Because there are real reasons, cultural influence from each one of these places. There’s a reason why jazz came from New Orleans. There’s a reason why Country went to Nashville and why the Blues went to Chicago. And I get to interview all of these people and talk to them about that, and it goes back a hundred years.

The challenge of the whole process is that, as you’re seeing these people talk about these cities, you see our band in the studio writing and putting a song together. And on the very last day of the session, I take my transcripts with all the interviews and I get a bottle of wine, and I sit in my hotel room. I read through the transcripts and take words and ideas and thoughts, and I put them on this side of the page. And on this side of the page, I have the outline of the song. I write the song from the episode. So the finale of each episode is a performance of the song, where you realize all of these lyrical references are from the show that you just watched. So, that’s the challenge.

It’s not like anything I’ve ever done and it was so fun. I will never, ever do it again. It was a pain in the ass but it was so exciting. I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t want to, you know? I just wanted to write and I wanted to play, and I wanted to interview the President. I just wanted to do all of these things that I only have a short amount of time to do. So that’s  that’s how I roll.”

Was there a point where your dad kind of made up for that comment that it could end any minute?

Dave Grohl: “Yeah. You know, look, he’s a brilliant and an incredible musician. The ear that I have for just figuring stuff out comes from my mom and my dad. Whenever I’d make a new record I’d have to send it to him, and he would sit there with his Scotch and his chair with a conductor baton and call me and say, ‘Oh god the Gershwin parallels are amazing!’ So, he’s a proud dad.”

Dave Grohl Sonic Highways Interview
Dave Grohl in ‘Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways’ (Photo by Andrew Stuart)

Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the specific spots in which you recorded and the people you recorded with? Were they friends or people you admired?

Dave Grohl: “I know a lot of musicians. The challenge is you could give a history of music from every city in America, from Green Bay to Richmond to San Diego. All of these places have music; it’s not just New York and Los Angeles. So when we first came up with the idea, I was like, ‘We’re going to Iceland and we’re going to f**king Jakarta, and we’re going…’ And then someone was like, ‘Do you know how much f**king money that’s going to cost?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’ So then we decided we’ll tell the story of American music and see if we can do it. And just as you want to hear Willie Nelson talk about his history, you also want to hear the stories of people, these unsung heroes, that you might not otherwise have ever learned about. Inner Ear recording studio in Washington, D.C., is a tiny place in Arlington, Virginia, just over the bridge. Now, this studio created the soundtrack to my youth. It recorded every punk rock band in Washington, D.C. Its influence is immeasurable. It changed millions of people like me. Ian MacKaye from Washington, D.C., started his own record label when he was 18 years old and hand-cut and glued singles and mail-ordered them. Do you know how many he’s sold at this point? 4 million records. Does anybody know about Dischord Records? You f**king do now! So I mean, that’s how you have to balance telling these stories.

Man, nobody is cooler than Dolly Parton and her story is amazing. Man, she didn’t even have running water. She bought her family’s first TV from being on TV. It’s these things that are amazing. But then there’s someone like Tony Joe White that a lot of people don’t know about, and his story will blow you away. I think the idea is that you tell the stories of these unsung studios and these unsung musicians, and that’s when people start feeling inspired. That’s when you get a kid in his basement watching the guitar player of Naked Raygun say, ‘You shouldn’t feel intimidated by your heroes. You should be inspired by them.’ And the idea is to inspire the next generation of musicians to fall in love with music, just as we did, to continue the lineage of American music.”

Had you recorded in these places prior to this documentary?

Dave Grohl: “Good question…the one in Washington DC, Inner Ear, I’ve been there. The Los Angeles studio, which is really a house not a studio. A couple of them. The place we recorded in Seattle was the last place we recorded before Kurt died and it was the first place that I recorded the Foo Fighters stuff by myself, so that was kind of the beginning of this whole idea of creating a theme. I thought, ‘I can tell the story of Seattle. I can tell the story of this insane studio – it’s really weird, it’s underground and really strange – but then tell the story of losing one band there and starting another one there.’ That becomes the theme of the episode and the theme of the song. That’s kind of how it all started. I thought, ‘Wow, if I can find seven more studios and do the same thing, then I’ve got something.'”

What song did you record in Seattle?

Dave Grohl: “In Seattle? Well, I write the lyrics on the very last day of the session so I don’t really write the song until we’re done, you know? Everybody looks at me and says on that last day, ‘Okay, Dave, go write a song.’ ‘Oh, shit!’ I go back to my hotel and it’s nut.”

Had it expanded to 10 episodes or 12 episodes, were there cities that you would like to have gotten to that would have worked logistically?

Dave Grohl: “I mean, we could have gone to North Carolina and talked about Bluegrass, or we could have gone to Miami or Boston. I started traveling when I was about 18 years old. I left high school, and I joined a band, and I jumped in a van. My per diem was $7 a day or whatever and we slept on floors, but I got to go to each one of these cities, and each one of these cities had a community of musicians that supported each other. They were music scenes, you know? They’re everywhere. It’s not just what you see here and what you see online or whatever. Encino is thriving. I was there last night. It was f**king awesome. So yeah, I mean, this is happening everywhere. You could go and tell the story of each one of these cities and there would be really important people and specific reasons why these things have happened. To me, that is the substance and the depth that I think people make an emotional connection to.”

Courtney Love recently said that reuniting with you was an obsession of hers. What was that like?

Dave Grohl: “It was great. We’ve known each other a long time and it was nice.”

– By Fred Topel

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